The level of bigotry an African American experienced had many factors. Depending on which region of the country one lived, it could be brutally swift and overt. It could be chilling and subtle. Or it could be both.
D.N.: When you interviewed people for the book, was there anything that stood out?
K.S.: What stood out was the emotion that white people had about the connection to their black maids. When I spoke to black people it was surprising to see how removed they were emotionally from those they worked for.
That was not always the case, but it was one of the dynamics that struck me. Sometimes it was a total disregard. It was just a job.
“Growing up in Mississippi, almost every family I knew had a black woman working in their house–cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the white children. That was life in Mississippi. I was young and assumed that’s how most of America lived.
. . . I knew a lot of Southerners in the city, and every now and then we’d talk about what we missed from the South. Inevitably, somebody would start talking about the maid they grew up with, some little thing that made us all remember–Alice’s good hamburgers or riding in the back seat to take Willy May home. Everybody had a story to tell.”
Mrs. McLorn was already deceased when the author graduated from college and realized Demetrie was more than just a good cook and someone fun to talk to. Unfortunately, real life maid Mrs. Demetrie McLorn died when Stockett was sixteen. Yet even in death, the author continues to address Mrs. McLorn by her first name. And this is just one small example of how the remnants of a system that elevated one race while oppressing another remain to this very day.
A Negro Nurse
More Slavery at the South
From The Independent, 72 (Jan. 25, 1912): 196-200. New York: Published for the proprietors, 1912.
“. . . Another thing–it’s a small indignity, it may be, but an indignity just the same. No white person, not even the little children just learning to talk, no white person at the South ever thinks of addressing any negro man or woman as Mr., or Mrs., or Miss. The women are called, “Cook,” or “Nurse,” or “Mammy,” or “Mary Jane,” or “Lou,” or “Dilcey,” as the case might be, and the men are called “Bob,” or “Boy,” or “Old Man,” or “Uncle Bill,” or “Pate.” In many cases our white employers refer to us, and in our presence, too, as their “niggers.” No matter what they call us–no matter what we teach our children to call us–we must tamely submit, and answer when we are called; we must enter no protest; if we did object, we should be driven out without the least ceremony, and, in applying for work at other places, we should find it very hard to procure another situation. . .
In the distant future, it may be, centuries and centuries hence, a monument of brass or stone will be erected to the Old Black Mammies of the South, but what we need is present help, present sympathy, better wages, better hours, more protections, and a chance to breathe for once while alive as free women. If none others will help us, it would seem that the Southern white women themselves might do so in their own defense, because we are rearing their children–we feed them, we bathe them, we teach them to speak the English language, and in numberless instances we sleep with them–and it is inevitable that the lives of their children will in some measure be pure or impure according as they are affected by contact with their colored nurses.”
© This work is the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It may be used freely by individuals for research, teaching and personal use as long as this statement of availability is included in the text.
For more excerpts from this first person account and others, please see this post: https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/07/06/they-love-us-sez-who/
Whether an African American worked for an employer who distained our race or not, symbols of oppression greeted blacks from dusk until dawn. We had to fight to get white Americans to see that the demeaning jokes, sit-coms, advertising, novels, and products were not well meaning, were not funny, and most of all, not true. For example, this ad was considered funny and not at all racially offensive:
More recently, this ad caused controversy:
However, there’s much more to the story:
The example above is but one reason why African Americans shouldn’t assume the level of knowledge or understanding on what constitutes an offensive depiction is solely limited to whites.
Especially not after black actresses in The Help uttered dialogue like “You is kind, you is smart, you is im-po-ent” and “Frying chicken tend to make you feel better about life” and sought to defend the book and their roles. Yet Viola Davis admitted to ignoring how Stockett described the maids, for this reason (items in bold are my doing):
“If you didn’t object to the dialect, were there aspects of the book that did bother you?
Davis: The one thing I don’t embrace in any book about black women is I don’t embrace how the looks are described. I always erase that. I don’t care if it’s the greatest writer in the world. I know these black women. The first woman of beauty in my life was my Aunt Joyce, and she was over 300 pounds, and we thought she was Halle Berry to us.
Every time she came to visit, she would have these earrings, and these clothes and the beauty of her skin. We would all sit around her touching her hands and her face and her skin and she was beautiful. I didn’t see the bigness. I just have a different idea of how we look, the hues of our skin, how we exude sensuality and sexuality and how our hair looks. So I always just interpret that for myself. It’s like Chris Walken cuts out all the exclamation points, and the periods. I cut out all the descriptions.”
I can understand why Davis would want to ignore descriptions like these (items in bold are my doing):
Pascagoula is described as tiny as a child, not five feet tall, and black as night (Pg 59) – Skeeter
That night after supper, me and that cockroach stare each other down across the kitchen floor. He big, inch, inch an a half. He black. Blacker than me. Aibileen’s battle of wills with a cockroach (Pg 189)
Constantine was so close, I could see the blackness of her gums (Pg 65) – Skeeter
The foreman drags a red cloth across his black forehead, his lips, his neck. (Pg 239) Skeeter
While visiting Constantine, this character talks about playing with two little girls who were “so black I couldn’t tell them apart and called them both just Mary.” (Pg 62) – Skeeter
The women are tall, short, black like asphalt or caramel brown. If your skin is too white, I’m told, you’ll never get hired The blacker the better. – (Pg 257) Skeeter
I clear my throat, produce a nervous smile. Minny doesn’t smile back. She is fat and short and strong. Her skin is blacker than Aibileen’s by ten shades, and shiny and taut, like a pair of new patent shoes. – Skeeter’s first impression of Minny (Pg 164)
There are more descriptions in the book which physically detail the maids (“parts of her hung over the chair” “Minny setting with her legs splayed”).
Viola Davis is also quoted as saying “Why do I have to play the Mammy?” in Essence Magazine, and goes further on to explain how she believes the role of Aibileen is multi-faceted:
“Of course I had trepidations. Why do I have to play the mammy? But what do you do as an actor if one of the most multi-faceted and rich roles you’ve ever been given is a maid in 1962 Mississippi? Do you not take the role because you feel in some ways it’s not a good message to send to Black people?” – Viola Davis, in a quote from Essence Magazine
There’s also this audio quote on You Tube, at about 8 minutes into the 10 minute piece:
“I’m playing a maid, a black actress playing a maid in 2011 in Hollywood, is a lot of pressure. You don’t play a maid. That is something you don’t do. When you play a maid where a white woman has written a story and a white man is directing it, so there is no way that it’s gonna be. . . I’m essentially playing a Mammy. So I felt a lot of pressure. Absolutely. And then and of course pressure from the readers who all wanted Oprah to play the role. And saw her as being seventy years old and about two hundred and fifty pounds or you know, yeah, I felt a lot of pressure. But it’s like Tate says, if you work from that point of pressure and fear, your work is gonna crack. At some point you just have to leave it alone. And know that we have our own standard of excellence . . .”
Link: Atlanta Mom’s on The Move http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=shc0mdT-0Cc
Statement made at about 8:00 minutes into the 10 minute interview
Here’s a well known, beloved icon:
Even after decades of complaints, Aunt Jemima, sans stereotypical speech, still adorns supermarket shelves. She was called “Aunt” for a reason. Just like black men were called “Uncle.” (not to be confused with the even lower designation of “boy” or “girl” at any age). Again, it was to show blacks their place, to not address an African Americans by the formal designation of Mr. or Mrs. or Miss during segregation.
I’ll be working on this post throughout the day. And I’m creating it especially for those who’ve seen the movie version of The Help and still want to pretend it wasn’t that bad for African Americans or bigotry didn’t effect most, if not all African Americans. Because you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.
People now realize bullying, in whatever form is wrong. Well segregation was legalized bullying. And rape. And assaults. And terrorizing men, women and children just for “fun.” And being denied essential services. Or being called any name other than your own. And studies claiming African Americans were mentally inferior and better suited for occupations that involved anything “physical”
During the height of segregation, long hours with little pay faced many African Americans.
Because there was a financial benefit to segregation. Sometimes blacks got paid very little and not comparable wages to their white counterparts, while doing more work and extended hours. And sometimes African Americans weren’t paid at all for services rendered. And there was nothing they could do about it.
The term “last hired. first fired” was still being evoked in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan, contrary to pundits who like to brag how wonderful life was during his presidency. Maybe for some. But not for everyone.
There was also a mindset, even by those who claimed to be “progressive” that we were indeed “different” than whites, in many instances. One personal experience I had, was when an employer asked whether I actually needed my job.
Long story short, I was supposed to train the individual who would be my replacement. And yes, that person was white. I left, and was able to secure a better position.
What made the difference for me I believe, was my college diploma from a private institution that raised eyebrows when noted on my resume.
I got standard questions such as “I didn’t know black people could tan” (this was after I’d removed my watch and there was a marked difference in the skin color) to this golden oldie “I’m not prejudiced. I’ve been in some black people’s homes and they’re just as clean as whites.”
I think when I heard that one I went home and told my mom (I was in my early twenties then). Unfortunately, I got a tongue lashing for not educating the person who’d said it. I’d simply laughed it off because the person who’d said it was elderly, but my mother always felt those moments presented opportunities for education, or what we now call a “teachable moment.”
Also, for all those who wish to spout off nonsense such as anyone willing to tell the un-whitewashed truth about the times must be still angry, LMAO because it’s you who can’t handle the truth.
I suspect much of what I post here makes some people angry.
Stockett’s revisionist dramedy is exactly what you need. And want.
Back in the day the word was “uppity” for any black person doing what I’ve done on this blog. That’s cool with me. Because I’ve been called worse, and then some. But I give as good as I get, since my parents were determined that all their children understand that the days of thinking your skin made you “different” were in the past. And those who still harbored such notions were the ones with the problem, and not us.
My family is a rainbow. Some have straight hair, and some don’t. Some are a beautiful deep brown, and others are light.
To be continued . . .